Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Night Circus


Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Long and leisurely (516 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: September 13, 2011 from Doubleday
Premise: Two young magicians were bound into a competition they didn't understand as children. As adults, Celia and Marco find that the staging ground of their competition is a circus constructed of marvels in black and white. They draw people into their game, both deliberately and not so, and aren't sure how to find a way out.
Warnings: child abuse as magical training
Recommendation: If you're looking for something dreamlike and beautiful, this may be your cup of tea, but it's only fair to also mention that this book doesn't have action scenes as such. It's slow and elegant and puzzling, but trying too hard to make it fit with logical sense is a disservice to the book.


What makes this one beautifully easy to see:

Right from "The circus arrives without warning," Erin Morgenstern has a gift for vivid prose, especially in her descriptions of the Le Cirque de Reves itself. The chapters are interspersed with short second-person segments from the perspective of a visitor, with the first focusing on how the circus looks during the transition from day to sunset to night proper, when people can go inside. The language comes off as lush without being purple, which is rare trick, and throws in appealing scents and sounds to draw these scenes up and off the page. The circus is the main character in the way it draws everyone into itself, taking on a life of its own once it's created. It begins as a casual suggestion from one magician to another, pointing out that a public venue would add a new dimension to the contest between their student-players. Mr. Alexander, the elder magician, enlists the help of a creative team and ensures that they are obsessed with the making every detail of the project perfect. Hector Bowen, who performs magic in public and calls himself Prospero the Enchanter, is delighted by the potential for flashy competition. The circus creators are eclectic, from Chandresh, the wealthy creative force who pulls them together, to Poppet and Widget, the twins who are born when the circus opens and grow up to do a kitten acrobatics show. The intricately detailed circus prose ends up being the best way to assemble such a broad cast in a way that makes each of them distinctive, and the narrative never lingers on one character for long; most chapters are only five or ten pages long, so there's ample room to see experience it from the perspective of creators, workers, and new visitors alike.

Finding the emotional center of the story brings us back to the circus once again; many of the circus's repeat visitors are reveurs, or dreamers, people who travel across the world to follow the circus. They are drawn to this experience as they are to no other, and that helps anchor the experiences centered on it. Marco and Celia, the reluctant competitors, plan to be adversaries but end up falling in love. Morgenstern doesn't devote much pagetime to their relationship as such, but they compete by changing and controlling the surface and end up making tents or alterations to impress each other even before Celia is certain of her opponent's identity. It's more complicated than a the average love story, since they can't end the competition and even thinking about leaving the circus puts them in unbearable pain, but being the focal point of each other's lives for so long makes it impossible for them to look beyond each other. When Celia receives proposals of marriage before joining the circus, she says only that she is already married and looks at the scar of a ring that burned into her finger and bound her to the contest. It would be easy for them to hate each other or for the love story to be trite, but they have a meeting of the minds and a slow courtship of art that makes their first kiss literally explosive. Their magic is connected to the emotions and they're bound together, so merely brushing hands can make the lights flicker or make the physical world respond. Their romance isn't the focus of the story, but it more than holds its own weight, which is rare in a novel juggling so many subplots.

Both the romance and the plot work in large part because of the way magic edges into real life. A circus that stays open at night is unusual but certainly possible, even if the train carrying it works partly by magic. The illusionist at the circus is using real magic in plain sight, but the enchantingly beautiful clock at the front gates was produced through purely mechanical skill. It doesn't quite seem like magical realism, but there are hints of a steampunk aesthetic in the magic: Mr. Barris, the circus's engineer, is willing to build complex creations that can be enhanced with magic. The circus is mysterious enough to mask even the most blatant magic as part of aura of illusion, with real people moving at a glacial pace as living statues without resorting to magic while spells are required to anchor many of the central tents. It's hard to separate out what's caused by magic and what's just the effect of the attention that goes into the circus's presentations, but the final effect is that the circus itself is both the nexus of people feeding magic into it and a source of magic in itself. This roving place has become the defining experience of nearly every character's life, whether they chose that or not, and it causes pain and imprisonment and madness without relinquishing an ounce of its beauty or fascination.

The red pen:

Beautiful though the prose is, the underlying story doesn't always make sense. Morgenstern is juggling upwards of a dozen point of view characters who appear out of chronological order, which can be lovely as we get to see how the circus has spread into the lives of the people who created it, but it also means that many chapters deliver half-answers at best. The creation of the circus works as both a creative effort and a magical construction, with those involved each contributing to something that they cannot fully understand or control, but it almost seems to stagnate once it's up and running. No one working there wants to leave, and the peculiar halt in almost everyone's aging is barely discussed; on the whole, the slowly building tension that's supposed to carry the plot forward doesn't seem evenly present. Although the characters are under increasing strain as the competition becomes more draining, there's no real sense of urgency until far too late in the book. We hear some cryptic remarks about the timing not being right for things to work out favorably, but then events rush together without making much sense: the characters have known for a year that things are getting worse, but we don't know what they've been doing besides worrying. At any given time, most or all of the characters seem to sense that something is wrong, but only a few of them even know who to ask about it, let alone how to attempt to make a difference. With more definition of exactly what the problem is, this could be a wonderfully suspenseful structure, but as it is the tension isn't focused enough to evoke anything but aimless anxiety.

We know that two magicians have been competing for centuries to determine whose magical practices are superior and that they use apprentices as their proxies instead of engaging directly. It's never clear on exactly what the debate is, however; Hector Bowen is fond of spectacle while Mr. Alexander seems to prefer sticking to the shadows in a more methodical approach, but the nature of their struggle is never clear. For all the black and white visions of the circus, the morality of the participants is far from stark; it's great to see a story like this without an easy villain, but the lines are so muddled that nearly everyone is the same half-innocent grey. The stakes of the contest aren't revealed until the book is more than half over, with Celia and Marco just knowing for a while that the contest will end when it reaches completion. Celia has more raw mental control while Marco has been taught to work with structures and systems outside himself, but there's no simple summation of what Prospero and Mr. Alexander are trying to prove to each other, and that can make the plot too tangled. The competition just exists, and while it's interesting for the players to not know the rules, the readers are left so much in the dark as well that it's hard to even be properly curious-- without decent hints to serve as foreshadowing, the knowledge just falls into place with little fanfare or dramatic tension.

The philosophical differences between the two magicians might be clearer if the magic system itself followed visible rules, but it doesn't seem to. Magic follows bloodlines to an extent, since Hector was so confident in offering his own daughter as a player, but some magic is also possible for anyone with enough training. It can create illusions or cross great distances, though it seems to excel most at binding people and things together, but it's hard to be sure how the magicians are accomplishing things. We get hints, like when we see Marco's magical notebooks or Celia explains what it's like to heal herself, but for the most part things....just happen, with the only universal constant that big magic drains the energy of the person using it. This can sometimes work to the plot's advantage, as when Isobel uses a tarot card and her partial understanding of magic to help stabilize the circus and the reader doesn't know whether it's working or not, but it can often come across as magic working in a way that's convenient to the plot, particularly at the climax of the book. When thing finally do pivot and change, it's at the instigation of a character who has had little to do with the competition so far and with the help of another character who has even less involvement. There's some vague exposition about what the circus needs in order to force a sudden and dramatic conclusion, which feels almost like cheating after so long spend weaving the threads of these disparate characters together into a whole. A plot so intricate certainly has the room to foreshadow a big ending, but this one is too close to coming out of nowhere.

The verdict: Though I sometimes wanted The Night Circus to make more sense than it did, it's beautiful: the prose is elegant and intricate and vivid, simply every positive description I can find for imagery that fully engages the senses without leaning on heaps of adjectives. It's not on my list of universal recommendations, but it rewards patience and rereading with lush detail and so many characters rotating the point of view that it's hard not to catch new things with time.

Prospects: This is very solidly a single novel that would be ruined by a sequel, but here's hoping that Morgenstern writes something else down the road.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Gypsy by Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm has a similar framing of magic with specifics hidden behind the myths and ideas framing the conflict. It moves more quickly and has more action, but it manages to create a similarly elegant tangle of disparate points of view coming together into one story.

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